Hillsdale faces criticism over approach to tackling homelessness problem

Councilmen Greg Stuchell and Rob Socha discuss the foundation of the Homeless Task Force Nov. 29.
Councilmen Greg Stuchell and Rob Socha discuss the foundation of the Homeless Task Force Nov. 29.

HILLSDALE — The conversation on Hillsdale’s growing homeless population and how the city intends to begin tackling the numerous issues leading to homelessness continues.

The city’s Public Safety Committee — chaired by Councilman Rob Socha — met Nov. 29 to begin laying the foundation for Mayor Adam Stockford’s directive to establish a Homeless Task Force that will begin addressing public safety concerns.

Much of the discussion Dec. 5 stemmed around that foundation and a number of people spoke during public comment.

More:Homeless Task Force forges plan to drive down trend

Ted Jansen, who has often been critical of city council, read aloud from a letter he authored in response to the Nov. 29 Public Safety Committee meeting.

“The comments made by some of the Hillsdale elite were disgusting in their presumption that homeless individuals are a great source of lawlessness and should be feared,” Jansen said. “These comments had no factual basis, but spoke of the prejudice these shirt-sleeve Christians have toward those of a different class.”

Councilman Greg Stuchell — who has often been critical of Hillsdale’s homeless — prepared the proposed foundation for the task force from a public safety standpoint and intends to spend the next three months collecting data from the Hillsdale City Police, Hillsdale County Prosecutor and Hillsdale Hospital.

More:Homeless in Hillsdale: A 'complex' and growing issue

“Before we make a plan, we really need to know what we’re dealing with,” Stuchell said.

Stuchell also said a focal point for the task force will be ensuring the city does not have veterans or children living in the streets.

Melissa Desjardin, executive director of Hillsdale Community Thrift, said her store has become a rallying point for those with housing challenges in the county and that there are over 100 children in Hillsdale County who are either homeless or at risk of being homeless.

While data collection efforts get underway, Stuchell and Socha said they intend to present the findings of that data to the full council by February 2023.

Tracy Fowler, who has been active in working with the homeless, expressed concerns with Stuchell’s data collection efforts.

“I worry about what the data is going to say,” Fowler said. “In the data world, garbage in is garbage out. This group and this council are not the experts on our unhoused neighbors. Collaborate. Don’t invent this wheel when it already exists and it’s already being done.”

Mayor Pro-Tem Will Morrisey said he is eager to hear what the task force will report.

“Homeless people are very diverse in terms of what they need,” Morrisey said. “There’s some people who are just down on their luck and then there are other people who need more serious attention. We’re going to need to be mindful of the different types of homeless people who are likely to be in our community and tailor resources to their needs.”

A well-established homeless camp sits off the Baw Beese Trail in Hillsdale near Baw Beese Lake.
A well-established homeless camp sits off the Baw Beese Trail in Hillsdale near Baw Beese Lake.

Ultimately, the council will use the data to address issues through various means up to and including ordinances or resources with a goal of eliminating camping on public lands and to protect the city’s parks and trails, Stuchell said.

An earlier attempt at establishing a Homeless Task Force in Hillsdale failed to take root largely because of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since then, Hillsdale’s homeless population has grown.

While many of the persons residing in the wooded areas along the Hills-Jo trail are harmless, according to Police Chief Scott Hephner, there have been some issues.

More:Overdose prompts police, EMS presence along popular recreation trail

A man recently overdosed in an encampment behind Hillsdale Buick GMC and allegations arose during a Nov. 7 Hillsdale City Council meeting that a homeless man in a wooded area near Hillsdale Academy exposed himself to a sixth grade girl.

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The indecent exposure allegations were made by Dr. Nicholas Rorick who lives on Riverdale Street in town.

A letter he authored to the council prompted extended conversation on the homeless issues in early November when a handful of persons spoke during public comment on the issue and Socha called to enforce laws in the city to cut down on homeless persons loitering on public lands or in public parks.

The Public Safety Committee will reconvene to continue discussion on establishing the task force at 6 p.m. Dec. 13 in council chambers.

— Corey Murray is the Public Safety Reporter for The Hillsdale Daily News, Sturgis Journal and The Daily Reporter. He can be contacted by email at cmurray@hillsdale.net. Follow him on Twitter: @cmurrayHDN.

This article originally appeared on Hillsdale Daily News: Hillsdale faces criticism over approach to homelessness problem